FOREPLAY: What For?Robert W. Birch, Ph.D.
ACS Certified Sexologist & Adult Sexuality Educator
Photo by Michael Boland (http://www.michaelboland.ca)
LUST: Quills Annual Erotic Magazine
I don't know about you, but I have grown increasingly weary of all the books and magazine articles that claim the discovery of something brand new about how or where to touch a partner. Let's face it, men and women have been touching each other for thousands of years. How could we have missed that magic spot . . . let's see, was it behind the right ear, or was it the left? I am going to assume that you already know some of the traditional erogenous zones, like the back of the neck, the inside of the elbow, and behind the knees. Yes, the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and even the arm pits are in this category. I am going to guess that you already value the sensual touch of a slow erotic massage using warm oil, and I will take for granted you have already thought of soft music, flickering candles, feeding each other grapes in bed, and making out in the backseat of your car, just for the novelty of it.
Trust me, I am not going to try to convince you that men have a G Spot or that I have discovered a new X Spot never before found on women. The topic of orgasms, multiple and otherwise, will be left for a another article, as that topic is about finishing. We need to start somewhere near the beginning with foreplay. Poets write of elegant foreplay and the writers of steamy erotica describe each caress in deliciously graphic detail. But, if we are going to begin at the beginning, where does a sexologist start? Not on hot and not even on warm. I'll start with, "You gotta be kidding!"
In long term relationships, being spontaneously and simultaneously interest in having intercourse is somewhat rare. Early in a relationship with everything novel and new, the very thought of being together can start the juices flowing. Novelty is a very powerful aphrodisiac! In fact, let's deviate for a moment and look at sexual desire. That's the "horny" feeling, the biological motivator to pursue sexual gratification. There are essentially three sources of desire.
The first source for that horny feeling is hormonal. This can occur whether or not a partner is interested or even interesting, and, since it is biological, will motivate a person if there is no partner at all. We will call this arousal "biogenic," as the desire is the result of a biological surge of a hormone or hormones.
The second source of desire is what we do in our heads. This desire can be stirred by seeing or hearing something arousing, it can be fueled by talking or touching a sexually desirable person, and it can be initiated by erotic fantasy. This can be called "psychogenic" arousal, for its genesis is in the individual's psyche or mind.
A young attractive couple meeting for infrequent encounters can probably do everything wrong during foreplay and still experience a fast, reliable and mutual turn on. This is not going to happen with the couple who have been married for 25 years, so those in long-term relationships need a back-up system that will get their motors running.
I think of the third type of arousal as nature's back-up. Biogenic arousal decreases with age, at least for men, and psychogenic arousal decreases with familiarity, at least for those in long-term relationships. So, what is this back-up? It is what has been call "reflexogenic" or "neurogenic" arousal, for it is a neurological reflex to being touched in the right place, by the right person, and at the right time. Note, it is not totally automatic. Certain conditions must be met: Good communication, effective touch, proper timing, and some emotional connection.
It is not uncommon for one partner in a relationship to be initially more interested than the other. We can think of the less interested person as having a sluggish starter. If reflexogenic arousal can be the jumpstart, are we now ready to talk about foreplay? No, not until we have dropped the e out of the word and change foreplay to for play.
Now, let's back up and talk of the couple in a long-term relationship. The quick spontaneous simultaneous arouse is gone. Bodies have aged a bit and familiarity has set in. Work, kids, and the paying of bills now consume time and energy. However, one of the partners feels the urge. About sixty percent of the time it will be the male who is beginning to feel horny. In most cases, if the one with desire says to their partner, "Let's do the deed," the one with lower desire will do a quick psychological and physiological survey, and if not ready, that person is likely to will feel pressured and will probably avoid the encounter.
A common mistake of many men is to begin sexual touch as the first indication of their desire. Many women do not see this as foreplay, but as an invasion of their bodies. In the therapy setting, many women have complained to their therapists, "The only time he touches me is when he wants sex."
I did not begin this article with the promise that a discussion of foreplay would be quick and direct. There is nothing simple about physical intimacy. The quote above reminds me that we often use the word sex when we really mean intercourse. Thus, "I want sex" is usually interpreted as "I want intercourse." This is not an invitation to begin a process, it is a statement of the goal. An expectation is implied, and that exerts pressure. Feeling of pressured is not a good place to start stirring desire and building arousal.
As mentioned, we will drop the e out of foreplay. The word foreplay says it is play that comes before intercourse. If one partner's starter (desire) is sluggish, in order to jumpstart the motor (arousal), the approach needs to be slow and without demands or pressure. The initial creation of the atmosphere and the initial touch must be for play. There must be a shared sense that the play has value in and of itself – not just as a means to an end. When all people know is how to start at point A and not stop until they reach Z, they eventually are going to stop trying because of the increasing failures to reach the goal. The secret to life-long sexuality is to never stop playing.
Start with the invitation – "Let's play." Start early, for your bodies will be expecting sleep if you being playing at your usual bedtime. Shower or bathe together or separately, both to get clean and to help relax. If you enjoy soft music in the background, choose something you will not want to sing along with. Candlelight is nice for some, but others enjoy the visual aspects of their partner's body and like more light. Begin your touch in nonsexual areas, and talk of what you see and feel, both as giver and receiver. If words do not come easily, make sounds. A soft moan goes a long way.
Kissing is important for most couples. Remember to kiss necks, shoulders, and breasts. Licking is nice – on the side of the neck, around nipples, the inside of an elbow or the palm of a hand. Incorporate oral/genital stimulation in your play. Even if arousal does not occur, it is still fun and it still feels good orally stimulating and being stimulated. Give feedback about what feels special and what works best.
Remember to make your foreplay for play and to emphasize the intimate process as opposed to the final goal. The beautiful irony is, the less you emphasize the goal, the more likely it is you will get there.
© 2004 Robert W. Birch, Ph.D., ACS
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